Higher education as seen in Australia

In the world of higher education there cannot be many people who have, serially, headed three universities. In fact I only know of one, and that is Steven Schwartz, now Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The two universities he ran before Macquarie were Murdoch University (also Australia) and Brunel University in the UK.

Although Professor Schwartz has often courted controversy in the way he has run the institutions of which he was in charge, he is also a very thoughtful public commentator. He is a polished communicator, with a presence on Twitter and with a blog. In the most recent blog post, he argues that higher education exists to serve the economy, but the way it does this should be driven by the promotion of ‘critical reasoning, self-directed learning and constructive scepticism’. In other words, he believes that the justification for the cost of higher education is the value it adds to the economy, but the method by which it does this should be intellectual and interdisciplinary: education rather than vocational training.

It is an attractive perspective, but perhaps it breaks down a little when we consider programmes that serve professional bodies in subjects such as law, accounting, engineering, medicine, and so forth. So we may need to ask again whether such professional qualifications should be provided at all at an undergraduate level, or whether they should become the business of postgraduate professional departments only. It’s worth a discussion.

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7 Comments on “Higher education as seen in Australia”

  1. NiallM Says:

    This is only one of the reasons why some degrees, particularly medicine, should be postgraduate. Oh for the day when entry to medicine will require a primary degree in science! It would raise the entry standard and prestige of science science degrees in *all* of our universities, give those 600ers the chance to work out if they *really* want to become medics (how many will figure out that they really want to be biochemists, or mathematicians, or …) give those on less than 600 points the chance to prove themselves (rather than just repeat the Leaving for another 10 points).
    The reasons for having such professional programmes as graduate-only entry are many.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    But lets not remove ‘critical reasoning, self-directed learning and constructive scepticism’ from professional training – we need more of this in the professions, not less, given their disproportionate power in our society.

    • Kevin O'Brien Says:

      Agreed – One class I attended year ago dealt with the “Monty Hall” problem and the controversy it generated.
      1000 Maths PhD swore blind by an answer that turned out to be wrong.
      That class stuck with me every since. I wish we did more stuff like that – but we had to get back to the number crunching.

  3. Al Says:

    What concerns me in this matter is funding?
    Who pays for citizen X to achieve degree and then go on to a masters of vocation?
    I drive the car I can afford but wish I could drive the one I deserve!!

  4. colummccaffery Says:

    The main point that Prof. Schwartz makes is that, “most modern jobs need a general education just as much, if not more, than vocational training.”

    “If we want the economy to thrive,” he says, “then the skills we need to teach are not narrow vocational ones, but critical reasoning, self-directed learning and constructive scepticism.”

    He gets it! He’s right. I’ve made this point here time and again. I’ve argued that those who want to emphasise specialist engineeering/science training at this time simply don’t have an understanding of the changes wrought by ICTs.



  5. Al Says:

    Do you profess to teach these skills?
    Can be an effort to demonstrate them.
    But to actually teach them?

    • Al,
      My point is that a good liberal humanities degree based on adequate primary and secondary education fills the bill for the kind of jobs generated by ICTs.

      As regards teaching fundamental skills like literacy or basic mathematics at university level, I do my best but it’s difficult and time consuming. Let me give you a somewhat contrived example. Suppose you are talking to students about, say, education policy and you say that the failure rate in Foundation Maths is X%, in Pass Maths is also X% and in Hons Maths is again X%. It dawns terribly on you that many of your students think that the overall failure rate is 3X%, while slightly fewer think that the overall failure rate cannot be calculated without knowing how many people sat each exam. You can do your best to put them right but it takes time and many think it a waste of time. The scary thing is that such students have Leaving Certs and are deemed ready to study for a degree!

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